Tag Archives: Revelation

The Biblical Concept of the Remnant (Twelve 5)

The people of God in the final conflict are called the “remnant” (Greek: loipôn) in Revelation 12:17. This end-time designation looks back on a long Old Testament tradition. The original meaning of “remnant” is a group of people who are “survivors of a disaster.” Due to flood, earthquake or conquest, a tribe or people could come in jeopardy of being totally destroyed (what we sometimes call genocide today). The survival of a remnant after any of these disasters brought hope that the tribe or people could be restored to greatness in the future (see Gen. 7:23). Within the Old Testament, a moral or spiritual meaning came to be attached to “remnant.” The remnant was a “believing minority” through whom God could ultimately save the human race from extinction in spite of the presence of sin and evil in the world.

As a result, “remnant” was used in three different theological ways in the OT. 1) Historical Remnant. Any group in the past that has experienced a mighty deliverance of God, such as the descendants of Noah and the Israel of the Exodus. Such a group is visible, nameable and countable. It is a surviving witness to God’s prior salvation, whether or not it remains faithful to God’s original purpose for the group (see 2 Chr. 30:6)

2) Faithful Remnant. This means those among a given historical remnant who remain faithful to the original message and mission of that historical movement. These are those God knows are faithful to Him (2 Tim. 2:19). They are, thus, less visible and countable to human eyes than the historical remnant (1 Kings 19:14-18).

3) Eschatological Remnant. The eschatological remnant is made up of all who will be found faithful during the apocalyptic woes of the end-time (Joel 2:31-32). There is reason to believe that this eschatological remnant will reach far beyond the borders of the historical or faithful remnants of the past (Isa. 66:19-20).

The book of Revelation contains all three type of remnant. The historical remnant in Revelation is the seed of the woman that appears at a particular point in history (Rev. 12:17). The church of Thyatira contains an example of a faithful remnant in the midst of apostasy (Rev. 2:24). And there will be a surprising, expansive end-time remnant that emerges just before the close of probation (Rev. 11:13). It is God’s purpose that the historical remnant faithfully prepare the way for the greater remnant to come.

The Nature of the Cosmic Conflict (Twelve 3)

The war in heaven of Revelation 12:7-9 is described in military language. There is the language of “war” (12:7– Greek: polemos), and “fighting” (also verse 7– Greek: polemêsai, epolemêsen). These Greek words normally describe armed conflict in the military sense. But these same words can be used in figurative ways as well, to heighten the drama of quarrels and verbal disagreements (Jam 4:1). When we examine the war of this chapter closely, it becomes clear that the war in heaven is more a war of words than a military event. There are four main evidences for this conclusion in chapter twelve.

First, the dragon sweeps a third of the stars down from heaven with his tail (Greek: oura). A crucial parallel text in the Old Testament is Isaiah 9:15. In that text the “tail” is a symbol for a prophet who teaches lies (Greek LXX: oura). So the focused of the dragon’s action is persuasive words rather than force. Second, the dragon is defined in multiple ways in Revelation 12:9. He is the devil, the deceiver, Satan and “that ancient serpent.” The latter is a clear reference to the serpent in the Garden of Eden who told lies about God to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:1-6). Here again, the focus is on persuasive speech rather than military force.

Third, the dragon/Satan is cast out of heaven as the “accuser of the brothers” in Rev. 12:10. It is his accusing words, rather than physical weapons, that cause his casting down. The remedy for accusations, at least in God’s form of government, is not to shut down discussion, but to provide evidence that the accusations are not true. The most powerful evidence that God is not arbitrary, judgmental or severe is how Jesus behaved on the cross (Rev. 12:11). God is so unwilling to resort to violence that He allowed His own creatures to torture and kill Him in human form. And finally, the dragon/Satan is overcome by “the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11). On earth, the evidence against Satan’s lies is provided by the testimonies of believers who are so firmly convinced that they would continue their testimony even in the face of death. So the war of Revelation twelve is not a military battle, it is a war of words. The solution to the problem in the universe is not force but evidence and persuasive speech.

What Happens When New Characters Appear in Revelation (Twelve 2)

The twelfth chapter of Revelation portrays the history and experience of the church from the birth of Christ (Rev. 12:5) to the final crisis of earth’s history (12:17). As such it sets the stage for Revelation’s primary focus on end-time events from chapter thirteen on (see next week’s lesson for details on Rev. 13). The backdrop for these earthly events is the cosmic conflict in heaven (12:7-10).

There is an important literary pattern in the book of Revelation. Whenever a new character appears in the story, the author pauses the narrative and offers a visual description of that character and a bit of its previous history. This “freeze frame” often helps the reader identify the character. After this introduction, the character plays a role in the larger story.

In Revelation chapter one, Jesus appears as a character in the book for the first time (Rev. 1:12-18—He is named earlier: 1:5,9, but is not described as a character there). There is a visual description (1:12-16) and a bit of His previous history (1:17-18) followed by His actions in the subsequent vision (Rev. 2 and 3). In chapter eleven, the two witnesses are introduced similarly with a physical description and a glimpse of their past history (11:3-6) followed by their actions in the context of the vision (11:7-13).

Two new characters appear at the beginning of chapter twelve (Rev. 12:1-4). First, there is a visual description of a woman (12:1) and a bit of her previous history (12:2). Then a dragon appears and is similarly introduced (12:3-4). Only then do both characters begin to act in the context of the vision itself (Rev. 12:5ff.). The male child of verse five, on the other hand, is not introduced with a visual description, probably because He has already been introduced earlier in a different form (1:12-18).

We will see the same literary pattern in Revelation 13. Both the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth are introduced with a freeze frame (Rev. 13:1-7 and 13:11) that prepares the way for their actions in the context of the final crisis of earth’s history (Rev. 12:17).

Revelation 12 and Christian History (Twelve 1)

Revelation twelve covers the entire sweep of Christian history with glimpses of the universal war that lies behind the conflicts of earth. This history is presented in four stages, beginning in Old Testament times: 1) The period before the birth of Christ; with a glimpse of Old Testament Israel, represented by a woman, (Rev. 12:1-2) and the original expulsion of Satan from heaven (Rev. 12:3-4). 2) The birth, ascension and enthronement of Christ with a fresh picture of the war in heaven as seen in the light of the cross (Rev. 12:5, 7-11). 3) The history of the Christian church between the two advents of Jesus, with a particular focus on the persecution of New Testament Israel (the faithful church) during the Middle Ages (Rev. 12:6, 13-16). 4) A view of the experience of the church in the final conflict (Rev. 12:17).

The study of chapter twelve of Revelation has caused me to consider the following themes:

1. What Happens When New Characters Appear in Revelation.
2. The Nature of the Cosmic Conflict.
3. The Development of the Year-Day Principle.
4. The Biblical Concept of the Remnant.
5. Textual Issues in Rev. 12:17.
6. The Testimony of Jesus.

The most important contribution of Revelation 12 to the Bible is the clarity of its description of the cosmic conflict. If we didn’t have Revelation 12, we would be unable to piece together a much larger picture of eternity past and the implications of what happened then for our lives today. Revelation 12, in a sense, is the essential context that gives everything else in the Bible meaning. Once you have read Revelation 12 many other texts shine with greater clarity. Awareness of the cosmic conflict impacts the way we look at the world and the way we find meaning and purpose in it. It also sharpens our understanding of the character of God. I hope to elaborate on some of these things in blogs to come.

The Spiritual Payoff in the Trumpets (Trumpets 7)

The material in the seven trumpets does not lend itself to a great deal of application to everyday life experience. But the following two points have been helpful to me.

1) How does the connection between the introduction to the trumpets (Rev. 8:3-5) and the fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11) offer encouragement to those suffering for the sake of the gospel today? The martyrs’ cry for judgment in the fifth seal is answered by the seven trumpets (see Rev. 8:13). The trumpets are God’s judgment within history on powers that have been oppressing His people. The message of the trumpets is that God sees the suffering of His people and responds to the injustice, not only at the end of time, but in the course of history. Like Job, we may not always understand what God is doing, but we have reason to trust Him even in the darkest times.

2) The judgments of the first two trumpets fall on those powers that combined to crucify Jesus (the religious authorities of Jerusalem under Caiaphas and Roman civil authority under Pilate). What does this tell us about opposition to the gospel? Opposition to the gospel and those who embrace it tends to come from two distinct directions; opposition from inside the house and from outside the house. Jesus was crucified when the leaders of Israel (inside) combined with outside powers (Rome) to put Him to death. Historically, however, the greatest opposition to the true gospel and its followers often comes from those in the same faith.
A similar dynamic is seen in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The father is not only rejected (initially) by the son who left, but also by the one who stayed. The former is indifferent to the father, the latter is motivated by selfish gain. The prodigal son represents those today who care little about God and faith and are visibly on a different track. The elder son, on the other hand, represents those in the church who do not know or exhibit the character of the Father. On the outside they look pious and obedient, but inside is the heart of a rebel.

The Meaning of the First Six Trumpets (Trumpets 4)

Here’s a nutshell summary of the key themes in the first six trumpets. 1) The first trumpet uses the Old Testament language of God’s judgments (hail, fire and blood– Exod. 9:23-26; Isa 10:16-20; Ezek. 38:22) directed against symbols of God’s OT people (vegetation and trees– Isa. 28:2ff.; Ezek. 20:47-48). Hence the first trumpet represents God’s judgment on the Jerusalem that had rejected Christ (Matt. 23:37-38; Luke 23:28-31). 2) The second trumpet recalls in general God’s judgments on those who opposed Him (Exod. 7:19-21), and in particular the fall of ancient Babylon (Jer. 51:24-25, 41-42). This trumpet seems to describe the fall of the Roman Empire.

3) The symbolism of the third trumpet parallels biblical imagery for the work of Satan (Isa. 14:12-19; Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9). But the symbolism of lamp, springs, rivers and water suggest spiritual life and growth (Psa. 1:3; 84:6-7; 119:105; Jer. 2:13). The falling of the star and the embittering of the waters connect the two ideas suggesting a perversion of truth and a rise of apostasy. This trumpet, then, may foretell the condition of the church in the Middle Ages. 4) In the fourth trumpet, on the other hand, a third of the sources of light (sun, moon and stars) are darkened, in other words, the symbols of truth are partially eclipsed. This could represent the rise of secularism after the Middle Ages or the deepening of apostasy in the church during the Middle Ages (Exod. 10:21-23; Job 38:2; Isa. 8:22; John 1:4-11; 3:18-21).

5) With the fifth trumpet the partial darkness of the fourth trumpet becomes total and worldwide (Rev. 9:1-2; Luke 8:31). If the fourth trumpet represents the rise of secularism after the Middle Ages, the fifth would represent the triumph of secularism in the modern age. With God and truth totally eclipsed, sinful mankind is left to the demonic torment of suicidal desires (Rev. 9:3-11; Luke 8:31; 10:17-20). The only safety is in genuine relationship with God (Rev. 9:4).

6) While the first five trumpets have many allusions to ancient Egypt, the sixth trumpet particularly echoes biblical accounts regarding ancient Babylon. There are references to the river of Babylon (Rev. 9:14), the idolatry of Babylon (Rev. 9:20; Dan 5:4, 23) and the fall of Babylon (Rev. 9:21; Isa 47:9-12). There are also many parallels with the sixth bowl (Euphrates, battle language, demonic imagery– Rev. 16:12-16). So the sixth trumpet portrays the rise of end-time Babylon, with its opposition to God arising from within the church (Rev. 17:4-5).

The readings in this blog are an attempt to take seriously the exegetical meaning of the trumpets, how the imagery would have been understood when it was originally written. It also takes seriously the apocalyptic nature of the trumpets and God’s ability to foretell the main lines of history in John’s future. The trumpets are not easy to understand, but when the imagery is read with an eye to its Old Testament backgrounds, the meaning is easier to follow.

The Meaning of “Trumpets” in the Bible (Trumpets 2)

The seven trumpets section of Revelation (particularly 8:2 – 9:21) is one of the most difficult passages in the Bible to interpret. Faithful Adventist students of the Bible have not come to agreement on its meaning through the years, even though Ellen White makes passing reference to the passage in the book Great Controversy. There are enough biblical and historical issues with Josiah Litch’s explanations (referenced in GC) that consensus on the passage’s meaning has been elusive. But there are aspects of the passage that are reasonably clear and one of these is how it builds on the symbolic meanings that trumpets have exhibited throughout the Bible.

The Greek words for trumpets (nouns) and trumpeting (verbs) occur 144 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT. The vast majority of those references (105 out of 144) concern either signaling in warfare, worship and prayer, or a combination of both. The clearest single passage on the meaning of trumpets is Num. 10:8-10. According to this text, in ancient Israel the trumpets were always to be handled by the priests (10:8), even when being used in the context of warfare. So there is a spiritual meaning that Israel was to discern in the blowing of trumpets.

The defense of the nation of Israel was considered a sacred task in the OT. So when Israel went out into battle, the trumpet priests went with them. The sounding of the trumpets not only indicated the moves that the battle line was to make, it represented a prayer for God’s intervention in that battle (10:9). Likewise, in the temple and on the feast days, the blowing of trumpets invited God’s spiritual intervention in the lives of His people (10:10). So the core meaning of trumpets in the OT is covenant prayer, calling on God to remember His people, both individually and collectively.

Most of the occurrences of trumpets and trumpeting in the NT are in Revelation, chapters 8 and 9. At first glance it might seem that signaling in warfare is the primary meaning in the seven trumpets of Revelation. But the connection between the trumpets and the fifth seal (see previous blog) underlines the prayer theme as the primary one here too. The trumpets are a response to the prayers of the suffering saints of God (Rev. 6:9-10; 8:2-6, 13). It assures them that God has noticed their suffering and, even though He may seem silent in their experience, He is already acting in history against those who have persecuted them. So the trumpets are more than just an outline of history, they contain a deep theological message for those who are suffering. God’s silence in the experience of His saints is not the whole picture. He is often responding in ways that we may not detect until later.

Concluding Thoughts on the Seven Seals and the 144,000 (Interlude 7)

Q. Reflecting on Rev. 7:1-3, do you think we are living in a time when God is restraining evil forces or a time when they are being let loose? If God is the one restraining, who is the one doing all the damage? When God does act in judgment, why does He do so? Some possible answers:
A. In many ways today’s turbulent times feel as if everything is falling apart. On the other hand, compared to the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, the casualties of terrorism are fairly minor in scope and most neighborhoods are reasonably safe. So one could argue we still live in a time of restraint. The finger of blame for the evils in the world falls clearly on Satan in the book of Revelation (Rev. 9:11; 12:12). He is the destroyer, not God. When God acts in judgment, the purpose is not to hurt and destroy. God judges either to discipline His people (as in Rev. 3:20) or to protect them from harm by evil forces (Rev. 7:1-3; 20:7-10). Satan is relentless in his pursuit of destruction. If it were not for the restraining influence of His Spirit, things would be far worse than they are now.

Q. Why is there so much military imagery in the Bible?
A. Military imagery is familiar to people today as well, as the news, action movies and spy thrillers keep war activity in the center of people’s consciousness. God meets people where they are, using familiar language to illustrate spiritual truths. In Revelation, careful observation tells us that the most important battles are often a “war of words.” The war in heaven is between Christ and the “accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10-11). The battle of Armageddon is won by those practicing spiritual watchfulness (Rev. 16:14-16).

Q. What is the meaning of the “new song” in Rev. 14:3? Why can no one sing that song except the 144,000?
A. The 144,000 have a unique experience, passing through the character-shaping events of the end-time (Rev. 7:1-3; 14:1-5). The tribulations of the end-time will develop in them a unique appreciation for Christ that would not have happened otherwise. God does not will the troubles of the end-time, but He uses them to enhance the Christ-likeness of His followers. The end-time believers will then be able to play a unique role in eternity (Rev. 7:14-15—see theme 4 in the Commentary above).

Are the 144,000 and Great Multitude Two Different Groups or Two Ways of Describing the Same End-Time People of God? (Interlude 5)

A surface reading of Revelation chapter seven suggests that the two groups are totally different. The 144,000 is a specific number of Jews made up of a specific number from each of the twelve tribes (7:4-8). The Great Multitude, on the other hand, is an innumerable collection of Gentiles from every nation, tribe, people and language (7:9). The 144,000 is also called “first fruits” in 14:4, implying that there is a second group like them in some way. But closer reading of these texts militates against those initial impressions.

First of all, the terms used for God’s end-time people are often interchangeable in Revelation. God’s people are not only called 144,000 and great multitude, they are also called remnant (12:17), saints (14:12), those who keep their garments (16:15) and the called, chosen and faithful followers of the Lamb (17:14). And several of these names are explicitly interchangeable. Two examples. 1) God’s people are called “remnant” in 12:17, then 144,000 in 14:1. But 14:1 alludes to Joel 2:32, where the same group is called “remnant.” The two groups have different names in Revelation but are the same end-time group. 2) The 144,000 of chapter 14 are then called “saints” in 14:12. So remnant, 144,000 and the saints are different ways of describing the same end-time group.

Second, John never sees the 144,000, he hears the number (7:4). But after hearing the description of the 144,000 (7:4-8) he looks and sees an extremely large group that no one can number (7:9). This hearing/seeing comparison is a literary pattern throughout the book of Revelation. John hears one thing (Lion) then sees its opposite (Lamb), but the two are different ways of describing one reality (Rev. 5:5-6). He hears a voice like a trumpet, but when he looks he sees the son of man speaking to him (Rev. 1:10-12). John hears that a prostitute is sitting on many waters, but when he looks he sees a woman sitting on a scarlet beast (17:1, 3). In each case, the two images are in strong contrast, even at opposite poles (like lion and lamb), yet they are different images that described the same thing.

Third, in Revelation 14 there are two harvests, the wheat and the grapes. So when the texts speaks about the 144,000 as first fruits (Rev., 14:4), the “second fruits” are explicitly mentioned later on in the chapter. The wheat grains, representing the righteous, are the first fruits of that harvest. The grapes, on the other hand, are the second fruits or the completion of the harvest image. The 144,000 in Revelation 14, then, are not a separate group or a portion of the whole, they themselves represent the entirety of God’s end-time people.

The “Souls Under the Altar” (Rev. 6:9-11) and the State of the Dead (Seals 5)

Some readers take this passage literally and assume it proves that the “souls under the altar” are conscious after death. But such a view is contrary to many other texts, such as Genesis 2:7, Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 12:7. Not only that, it is contrary to the whole biblical perspective on human nature. Human beings in the biblical concept are not dual beings, with a mortal, physical body and an immortal, immaterial soul. They are unified wholes. In the Hebrew understanding, there is no consciousness apart from a body and no afterlife without a bodily resurrection. In Hebrew thinking, the body is like the hardware of a computer and the “spirit” that returns to God (Eccl. 12:7) is like the software that God installed in the body at creation (Gen. 2:7). As with computers, the software is critical but does not “run” apart from the hardware. So the Hebrews saw human beings are unified wholes.

If Revelation 6:9-11 is taken literally, it contradicts the view of human nature taken up in the rest of the Bible. But this text is clearly symbolic, echoing the story of Cain and Abel (Gen. 4:10-11) and the Altar of Burnt Offering in the Hebrew sanctuary, which is the only object in the sanctuary where anything happens at the base (Lev. 5:9).

The souls under the altar have been martyred (“slain,” KJV, NIV) for their faithfulness to God’s Word. In Hebrew thinking, the blood represents the life of the one whose blood is shed (Lev 17:11-14). Referring to the martyrs, Revelation 16:6 tells us that their blood was “poured out” (an allusion to what happened at the base of the altar in the sanctuary) by “the inhabitants of the earth” (a phrase consistently applied to the wicked in Revelation). What is the relationship of martyrdom to the sanctuary service? Jesus predicted in John 16:2 that those persecute His followers would think that they are offering “sacrificial service” (Greek: latreian) to God.

So the souls under the altar are not in a disembodied state in heaven. The Altar of Burnt Offering represents the cross of Christ and the persecution of His believers on earth. The martyrs only come to life again at the beginning of the millennium (Rev. 20:4). As was the case with the blood of Abel, the martyrs are depicted as on earth, not in heaven. The crying out of the blood is a metaphorical way of saying that the things done to them are held in remembrance by God until their resurrection at the Second Coming of Jesus (1 Thess. 4:16).